Friday, February 12, 2010

Criminally Overlooked Games: Dark Cloud

I'm a big believer in the holy triumvirate of game design: Controls, Achievement and Anticipation. Controls are obvious: You shouldn't have to struggle with the controller to get the game to do what you want it to do. Achievement means that goals should always be attainable yet challenging. Anticipation means that you should always wonder what's around the corner, whether it may be a new weapon, a cool cutscene, or a neat backdrop.

Dark Cloud was one of those games that sold a ton of copies and was quickly forgotten. Released around the time of the launch of the Playstation 2, Dark Cloud doesn't carry a very wide footprint in gaming now. It had its flaws as well, sometimes glaringly so. However, since it held true to the holy triumvirate of game design, it holds up really well.

Dark Cloud was made by Level-5, which has now exploded with Professor Layton, Dragon Quest 8 and 9, and Rogue Galaxy under their belts. Dark Cloud was one of their first proving grounds, where they showed they could make memorable characters with fun mechanics and memorable setpieces.

Here's the plot: You're Toan, a character who looks suspiciously like Link. The Dark Genie has destroyed all life on the planet, and you're tasked with finding pieces of the world and putting it back together. Along the way, you'll make friends with a diverse group of adventurers, like a half-cat half-human girl, a reluctant desert warrior, and a machine-gun toting flying dwarf. You'll rebuild cities, go fishing, and try and stop the Dark Genie from being created.

At it's core, Dark Cloud is a Rogue-like, with randomly generated dungeons and weapons littering the world. Instead of levelling up your character, you level up your weapons with gems you find. You snap them into the weapon, and when your weapon levels up, they become part of the stats of the weapon. After a while, you can turn that weapon into a gem which can be snapped into a new, more powerful weapon to give it improved attributes or upgrade the weapon into a new weapon.

When in the dungeons, you're able to find various globes scattered around that generally have pieces of a city in them. You're able to absorb those pieces and then bring them back in order to construct the city according to the wishes of the townspeople. Sometimes, they'll have simple requests like, "I had a ladder, please bring me one." Sometimes, they'll be more complex, like, "I need to be near water." Sometimes, like in the desert area, they'll be really outlandish, like, "Match up the face on my house with the face on this totem pole AND put me nearby water." Either way, it's immensely satisfying to place trees and ponds and houses and waterwheels and then be able to walk amongst those very same buildings that you put there. It's gives you a really cool sense of accomplishment that you don't get from anywhere else.

When talking about Dark Cloud, I find myself talking more about the mechanics of the game than the underlying plot. In that sense, it's a lot like Diablo, where the design makes the game. However, since Dark Cloud is Japanese, you have to bet there will be some lengthy (yet interesting) cutscenes and some truly strange moments. For instance, one fortune teller tells your fortune by jumping on your head, covering your face with her skirt, and wiggling back and forth. It's weird.

Speaking of the mechanics, Dark Cloud shouldn't be fun. For example, you have manage your thirst. If you get too thirsty, you'll start losing health. Therefore, you have to carry tons of bottles of water with you in especially deep dungeons. Does this make the game more fun? No, absolutely not. Also, your weapons can break. When they break, they're gone for good. All the stats and special bonuses you've implanted in them are gone as well. Does this make the game more fun? No way. I guess the core concept of Dark Cloud was so much fun that it holds up even with its flaws or weird decisions.

Level-5 went back to the well with a bigger budget for Dark Cloud 2, adding more features onto the original game including fish fighting, golfing in the dungeons, photography, and a giant robot. No more managing thirst or perma-broken weapons. You would think that these changes would have improved the game, but I still say that the original was the better game. It was design distilled down to it's purest essence, and that's why Dark Cloud is Criminally Overlooked.

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